Over the last two to three decades the prevalence of overweight and obese people has become a major public health issue across countries, age-groups, class, race and ethnicity. As long ago as 2003, research estimated that 61% of Americans were overweight, and 20% were obese. In 2006, the OECD ranked Britain’s overweight and obesity rate (62%) as the worst in Europe and the third-worst in the world, behind Mexico (69.5%) and the U.S (67.3%). In 2008, more than 1.4 billion adults were overweight, including over 200 million obese men and nearly 300 obese million women. More than 40 million children under the age of five were overweight in 2011. Children and adults are getting fatter.
The rise in body size is a public health issue because of its cost: medical experts link numerous ailments to excess weight, such as diabetes, angina, osteoarthritis, stroke, gout, gall bladder disease, breast cancer, cancer of the colon and ovarian cancer. Overweight and obese people are said to be more prone to heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, diabetes, chronic depression and many other life threatening conditions. An overweight child is likely to become an overweight adult. The cost to the public purse could be billions of pounds.
The CJEU has now confirmed that obesity is also a matter for equality law. EU law does not formally prohibit fattism – like other public health issues, this remains within the competence of the member states – but in the first case of its kind, the CJEU decided that discrimination on the grounds of obesity can fall within the disability strand of the Equal Treatment Directive 2000/78. This was stated in answer to questions arising before a Danish court during a case concerning the weight of a childminder.
Mr Kaltoft was hired by the Municipality of Billund in 1998 on a permanent contract as a childminder. He was obese at the time of his initial employment and, despite periods of weight loss, remained such throughout his 15 years in this post. From March 2010, he appeared to be under informal review, being visited by his boss and asked about his weight. During 2010, when the number of children in Billund fell, he was given fewer children to look after. That same year, he was chosen to be dismissed. When Kaltoft asked why he was the only childminder to be dismissed, he was told it was due to his decreased workload. Kaltoft was convinced that it had something to do with his weight.
His trade union brought an action before the District Court seeking compensation for him, arguing that he had been subjected to weight discrimination. The Danish court stayed proceedings to ask the CJ four questions, of which only the first and fourth were answered: whether it is contrary to EU law (for example Article 6 TEU on fundamental rights) for a public-sector employer to discriminate on grounds of obesity in the labour market; and whether obesity could be deemed to be a disability covered by Directive 2000/78/EC.
The first question was dealt with relatively swiftly: the Fourth Chamber of the Court of Justice did not emulate the boldness of the Grand Chamber in Mangold but citing Chacon Navas and Coleman declared that ‘EU law must be interpreted as not laying down a general principle of non-discrimination on grounds of obesity as such…’. The Fourth Chamber then considered whether obesity is a disability. Its reasoning began from the purpose of Directive 2000/78: to set out a ‘general framework for combating discrimination, as regards employment and occupation, on any of the grounds referred to in that article, which include disability.’ It then noted the meaning of direct discrimination in this Directive and its scope of application – per Article 3(1)(c) it covers all persons in the public and private sectors, and all phases of employment including dismissals. Citing HK Danmark and Glatzel, where the CJ – taking inspiration from the EU ratification of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities – stated that
53…the concept of ‘disability’ must be understood as referring to a limitation which results in particular from long-term physical, mental or psychological impairments which in interaction with various barriers may hinder the full and effective participation of the person concerned in professional life on an equal basis with other workers
It concluded that in order to be compatible with Directive 2000/78, the concept of ‘disability’ a)‘must be understood as referring not only to the impossibility of exercising a professional activity, but also to a hindrance to the exercise of such an activity’  and moreover that b) the concept had to be open-ended in relation to the ‘origin of the disability’  – it could not be dependent upon ‘the extent to which the person may or may not have contributed to the onset of his disability.’  Thus while obesity itself is not a ‘disability’ within the meaning of Directive 2000/78 , it decided that obesity could be covered by the concept of ‘disability’ in that Directive where
- ‘the obesity of the worker concerned entails a limitation which results in particular from physical, mental or psychological impairments that in interaction with various barriers may hinder the full and effective participation of that person in professional life on an equal basis with other workers, and the limitation is a long-term one, obesity can be covered by the concept of ‘disability’ within the meaning of Directive 2000/78.
- Such would be the case, in particular, if the obesity of the worker hindered his full and effective participation in professional life on an equal basis with other workers on account of reduced mobility or the onset, in that person, of medical conditions preventing him from carrying out his work or causing discomfort when carrying out his professional activity.
It was left for the Danish court to decide whether, despite the fact that he was able to work effectively for 15 years as a childminder, his obesity during his term of employment nonetheless limited Kaltoft in the way envisaged by the EU concept of ‘disability’. He would then have to prove that his dismissal was because of his obesity. Continue reading